Many thought leaders (such as Richard Branson) believe that a full legalization of all drugs is the best approach for global drug policy. But has anyone ever attempted to calculate the effects of how such a policy would actually affect the global population?

On one hand tens of billions of dollars could be saved by shutting down departments responsible for the fight against the drug trade. Billions more would be collected by taxing the now legal drug trade. On the other hand a certain percentage of the population is liable to become addicts and eventually die. Perhaps academic research has been conducted to look into both aspects?

  • 1
    I doubt that it is possible to even make a rough estimation about this because it is hard to estimate how legalization would affect consumer behavior, how much less unhealthy recreational drug use would be if drug quality would be properly monitored and how many addicts would start to seek help if they wouldn't have to be afraid of legal consequences if they do.
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 18:22
  • 2
    I edited out "progressive" since tons of supporters of lealization are far from "progressive" political camp (and are in fact their near-mortal enemies, libertarians). Progressive position is usually merely about less punishments or even merely about making sure there's equal punishment across demographics (e.g. coke vs crak)
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 18:30
  • 7
    The example of Portugal shows that decriminalization doesn't lead to more deaths due to drugs but rather the opposite. The US has 50 times as many drug deaths per million as Portugal.
    – Christian
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 18:54
  • 1
    @Christian decriminalization and legalization are two very very different beasts Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 20:49
  • 2
    Richard Branson is a "thought leader"? Ahem.
    – janh
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 21:49

3 Answers 3


More than that.

Some states have tried legalization and this is the result so far. Overall, the effect is exactly what libertarians would think.


Lower crimes (real crime now)

On the whole, crime statistics for Washington state reached a 40-year low in 2014, with violent crime down 10 percent and a 13 percent drop in the state’s murder rate. Colorado also saw decreases in overall crime rates, violent crimes, and property crimes.

Teen usage drops slightly

The report was based on survey data from the state’s Department of Health, which polled for usage among students in grades six, eight, ten, and twelve. The results of the survey showed decreased usage by students in all four grade levels. For example, students in the tenth grade responded at a 17 percent usage rate in 2016, compared to rates of 18 percent in 2006, and 20 percent in 2010.

Similar decreases in teen usage were observed in Colorado, with 21.2 percent reporting usage in 2015, down from 22 percent in 2011.

Why not wait a little longer and keep it legal than doing it now?

Economic boom

Even setting aside financial gains by the myriad private businesses now operating in each state, and focusing instead on state revenues such as excise taxes and licensing fees, the case is clear. In 2014, Colorado received over $76 million in revenues, $35 million of which went directly toward funding the state’s education system. In 2015, total tax revenues from cannabis increased to over $135 million.

In Washington, $83 million was received in excise taxes alone during the first year of recreational cannabis shops operating in the state. In 2016 the state’s tax obligation was projected at $185 million, with the expectation of 2017 reaching over $230 million.

The lion’s share of tax revenues in Washington are slated for public health programs including Medicaid, substance abuse prevention, and community health centers.

Another estimate can be seen from Silk Road. It's basically almost as good as legalization.


When both are legal, the safer drugs would sell

Marijuana was No. 1, followed by the nonspecific category "drugs." As Christin notes in his paper, 16 of the top 20 categories are drug-related, with "soft drugs" like marijuana outselling "hard drugs" like opiates. "This presumably simply reflects market demand," he wrote.

So without government rules, the main advertised purpose of war on drugs, reducing harm, is already accomplished far better under free market. Consumers avoid dangerous drug and use safer drugs automatically.

Super dangerous drugs, like Flaka, don't sell. Why would anyone buy dangerous drugs if it can use safer ones with little risk of getting caught.

  • All the other answers act like they are clueless or want to be "objective". But really. Legalization of drugs is the one thing libertarian is right all the way. Government simply lie. Most illegal drugs are NOT dangerous in any normal way. It's just so obvious. There is no "both sides" when it comes to truth. Normal libertarian may question other libertarian agenda. I do not think well informed reasonable voters would even think that drug should be illegal if it can be taxed instead.
    – user6063
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 9:26

There's not a consensus on the effects of full legalization on consumption, addiction, and violence. So it's not just a matter of running numbers. Any numbers anyone has ran will reflect their assumptions.

It's a highly politicized debate.

Take violence. On one extreme, legalization proponents predict you'd just remove the violence associated with organized crime, and that's it. On the other extreme, legalization opposers predict almost a zombie apocalypse, with hordes of stereotypical junkies attacking people at random on the streets. And everything in between.

There's experiments with rats supporting all sides. It's hard to know which will generalize. The recent marijuana decriminalization provides strong evidence for the "just remove organized crime" camp, but things might be different with harder drugs and full legalization.

  • I think we have more than theory. It's been tried. It did just fine in colorado.
    – user4951
    Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 21:09
  • Reference your rat experiments that oppose legalization please champ Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 9:39
  • rat experiments are not necessary, there were human experiments already conducted, project artichoke, project MK Ultra, maybe 100 years ago rat experiments were the standard but by today's standards that's differently abled view Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 9:41

On one hand tens of billions of dollars could be saved by shutting down departments responsible for the fight against the drug trade.

Maybe, but then you'd have to replace them with new departments regulating the drug trade. Look at the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives), a $1.2 billion budget, plus the FDA (Food & Drug Administration), which is a $4.5 billion budget. That combination ($5.7 billion) is about double the Drug Enforcement Agency's $2.8 billion budget. (All numbers from 2015: ATF; FDA; DEA.)

There are a different set of problems with legal drugs, but they are not necessarily cheaper problems.

The United States has some experience with banning and then legalizing a drug. It banned alcohol for a decade before lifting the Prohibition. During the ban, the number of users went down but consumption per user increased. This suggests but does not establish that it was most effective in reducing usage among casual users rather than addicts.

It's also noteworthy that we see no reduction in incarceration rates after Prohibition was repealed (PDF). In fact, incarceration rates went up after repeal. They did not drop until World War II, when the draft took many potential inmates out of the reach of domestic law.

  • 2
    The DEA is just a small part of the costs of enforcing the drug prohibition. Local police, FBI and sometimes even the US army (think Afghan opium fields) are also involved in the "war against drugs". Organized crime often uses the proceeds from the drug trade to fund other enterprises such as human trafficking, which in turn require more law enforcement, anti money laundering activities, etc. And countries like Mexico would be massively relieved as the drug trade is what makes its cartels so powerful. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 8:29
  • Plus you'd get a lot of tax since now the entire drug industry would be legal. The benefits would be enormous. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 13:48
  • Your answer doesn't say either that there is or isn't the kind of research that OP is asking for. Also, it doesn't reference any kind of research showing what the net costs or benefits might be. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 15:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .